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S233 - Public Lands and Forests Bills




Statement of

Marcilynn A. Burke

Deputy Director

Bureau of Land Management, Department of the Interior

Senate Energy and Natural Resources

Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests

S. 233, North Fork Watershed Protection Act of 2011

May 25, 2011 

Thank you for the invitation to testify on S. 233, the North Fork Watershed Protection Act of 2011.  The Department of the Interior supports S. 233, which would withdraw Federal lands within the North Fork watershed of Montana’s Flathead River from all forms of location, entry, and patent under the mining laws and from disposition under all laws related to mineral or geothermal leasing.  Enactment of S. 233 would mark an important milestone in the work occurring across multiple jurisdictions to help preserve the remarkable resources in the Crown of the Continent ecosystem.

Background

The Flathead River Basin, a key portion of an area known as the Crown of the Continent ecosystem, spans the boundaries of the United States and Canada.  It includes part of the United States’ Glacier National Park and borders Canada’s Waterton Lakes National Park.  These two parks comprise the world’s first International Peace Park as well as a World Heritage Site.  The U.S. Forest Service’s Flathead National Forest is also located within the Flathead River watershed.  The Bureau of Land Management manages the Federal mineral estate underlying the Flathead National Forest.

Running along the west side of the Continental Divide, the North Fork of the Flathead River enters the United States at the Canadian border and forms the western border of Glacier National Park until its confluence with the Middle Fork of the Flathead River near the southern end of Glacier National Park.  The North Fork watershed, a sub-basin of the Flathead River watershed, includes areas currently managed by the National Park Service, the State of Montana, the U.S. Forest Service, and some private landowners. 

The Flathead River Basin is recognized for its natural resource values, including wildlife corridors for large and medium-sized carnivores, aquatic habitat, and plant species diversity.  The area is rich in cultural heritage resources, with archeological evidence of human habitation starting 10,000 years ago.  Several Indian tribes, including the Blackfeet, the Salish, and the Kootenai, have a well-established presence in the area. The area also has celebrated recreational opportunities, including hunting, fishing, and backcountry hiking and camping.

There has been interest in protecting the Crown of the Continent resources for some time.  On February 18, 2010, the State of Montana and the Province of British Columbia executed a Memorandum of Understanding which addresses a myriad of issues related to the Flathead River Basin on both sides of the U.S. – Canada border.  The intention of Part I.A. of that memorandum is to “[r]emove mining, oil and gas, and coal development as permissible land uses in the Flathead River Basin.”   

The Flathead River Basin contains Federally-owned subsurface mineral estate under National Forest System lands that the Federal government has leased for oil and gas development.  At the time legislation was proposed in 2010, there were 115 oil and gas leases in the North Fork watershed that the BLM issued between 1982 and 1985.  The leases, which cover over 238,000 acres, are inactive and under suspension as part of the 1985 court case Conner v. Burford.  At the request of Montana Senators Max Baucus and John Tester, leaseholders have voluntarily relinquished 76 leases consisting of almost 182,000 acres. The BLM has not offered any other leases in the Flathead National Forest since the Conner v. Burford litigation suspended the existing leases in 1985.

The U.S. Forest Service is responsible for the surface management of National Forest System land; however, as noted earlier, the Secretary of the Interior and the BLM are responsible for administering the Federal subsurface mineral estate under the Mining Law of 1872, the Mineral Leasing Act of 1920, and various mineral leasing acts.  With respect to locatable minerals and oil and gas resources, the Forest Service has authority to regulate the effects of mineral operations upon National Forest System resources.   The BLM only issues mineral leases for locatable minerals and oil and gas resources upon concurrence of the surface management agency and always works cooperatively with the agency to ensure that management goals and objectives for mineral exploration and development activities are achieved, that operations are conducted to minimize effects on natural resources, and that the land affected by operations is reclaimed. 

S. 233

S. 233 withdraws all Federal lands or interest in lands, comprised of approximately  430,000 acres of the Flathead National Forest, within the North and Middle Fork watersheds of the Flathead River from all forms of location, entry, and patent under the mining laws and from disposition under all laws related to mineral or geothermal leasing.  We note that National Park acreage within the watershed is already unavailable for mineral entry.  S. 233 does not affect valid, existing rights, including the 39 leases in the North Fork watershed that are suspended under the Conner v. Burford litigation.  The Department fully supports S. 233 as it furthers the goal of preserving the important resources of this region. 

The Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, which extends from Canada into the United States, is one of the great protected ecosystems on the North American continent.  A 2010 World Heritage Center/International Union for the Conservation of Nature Report noted that the International Peace Park is “one of the largest, most pristine, intact, and best protected expanses of natural terrain in North America.  It provides the wide range of non-fragmented habitats and key ecological connections that are vital for the survival and security of wildlife and plants in the Waterton-Glacier property and the Flathead watershed.”  Retaining this expanse of natural landscape in the Crown of the Continent ecosystem is of vital importance for providing ecosystem connectivity, which is essential for the growth and survival of plants and animals in the region.  S. 233 will help accomplish this goal.

The Department of the Interior is also committed to maintaining the ecological integrity of Glacier National Park, one of the most noteworthy natural and cultural treasures of our Nation.  Preserving the region’s and the park’s water resources is also critical.  The rich aquatic ecosystems provide breeding and feeding habitats for a variety of important species, and the Department recognizes the importance of maintaining critical habitat corridors when planning for resources uses.  S. 233 will help protect and preserve the important resources of the greater Crown of the Continent ecosystem, including those within Glacier National Park. 

Conclusion

The Department supports S. 233 and commends the many parties involved in protecting the North Fork of the Flathead River and the important resources shared by the United States and Canada.  We hope that this legislation and the efforts of the federal and state/provincial governments add to the important legacy of conservation in the Glacier/Waterton Lakes area and Flathead River basin.